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Geography students take first-ever research field trip to Maui

Geography students take first-ever research field trip to Maui

How do you like the sound of this geography field trip? Ten days in Maui climbing cinder cones, snorkelling amongst coral reefs, trekking through rainforest – and doing research every step of the way.

For Swannie Chan, a fourth-year geography student who really wanted field experience, the choice was clear: “Do I want to go to Hawaii or Black Creek Village? It was a no brainer.”

In mid-August, Chan, Zoe Davis, a fourth-year environmental science student, and 16 other York undergraduates packed their swimming suits and hiking boots and flew to Honolulu then on to Maui. For the next eight days, they went all over the island on excursions led by geography Professors Kathy Young and Peter Vandergeest, and graduate assistant Jane Assini.

Left: Zoe Davis collecting data on the Maui coast. Photo by Dawn Ho.

Blue skies, brilliant stars and tropical heat tempered by gentle ocean breezes made for an idyllic visit – perfect for doing the research they’d come to do. For undergraduates used to textbook learning and case studies, this experience was like reality TV. “I thought it would be like “Lost”,” said Chan. Maui residents Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson eluded them, but they came home three credits richer, $3,000 poorer, keener than ever and a little changed.

For geographers, the appeal of Maui is its diverse topography. Less urbanized than Oahu but still a magnet for celebrities drawn to its sand and surf, the island features everything from desert to tropical rainforest, and volcanoes to vast beaches. On one coast, giant waves draw the world’s most fanatic surfers, on the other, coral reefs lure snorkellers to an underwater paradise. There is ample evidence of climate change – a rising sea and persistent drought – and tourism has affected the island’s culture and environment.

What a motherlode of research possibilities. The human geographers, like Chan, could study the effect of tourism on the culture. The physical geographers, like Davis (she's in the physical stream of environmental science), could analyze data they collected on beach erosion, air temperature, water quality and quantity, and wind energy.

Based in South Kihei on the southwest coast, the students piled into three vans for daily excursions and field trips to all corners of the island.

Right: Sunrise above the clouds on Mount Haleakala. Photo by Kathy Young.

“I put my research cap on when I left and actually liked doing the trip as a geographer,” said Chan, who’s travelled the world as a tourist.

The students studied beach erosion on the north and west shores, and learned about volcanoes and lava flows on a trip to Mount Haleakala, one of two volcanoes on Maui. Kathy Young woke them at 2am one morning for a bike excursion up the volcano. Along the way, they measured temperature, and wind and water quality, surfacing above the clouds in time to see the sun rise. They endured hours over rough roads to remote Hana and Lahaina to visit tropical rain forest and desert, and enjoyed a traditional luau celebration. They tasted medicinal plants in botanical gardens, saw sugar cane plantations, visited a taro farm and took an ecotour snorkelling around coral reef. “The water was so clear, I felt like I was watching TV,” said Chan. “It was one of the highlights of the trip.”

Rangers took them into Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve, 90 per cent of which is off limits to the public. This fact inspired Chan’s project – a survey of people in nearby Wailea about their knowledge of and opinion of restricted access to the reserve, a sacred Hawaiian heritage site bordering a pristine coral reef.

Davis, on the other hand, was investigating the mitigating influence of coral reefs on beach erosion and, by extension, the potential of rock walls to prevent this erosion. “It was such an amazing opportunity to be in the field on site designing my own project, analyzing my own data. There is nothing like doing your own work. You never get this experience in the classroom.”

Left: Swannie Chan interviews Ranger Joe.

For an environmental science student such as Davis, “this trip was a test to see if I could love research and hack it in the field.” After a three-and-a-half-hour trek 3,000 metres up the side of a cinder cone, getting up at 2am to see sunrise from the top of a volcano, and lugging heavy equipment then improvising when it broke, she thinks she could.

Each student had to do an individual project and a group project. “We got a taste of so many different kinds of research,” said Davis. “It can change your career. I realized if you work hard you can do some amazing things. It changed my trajectory, but not my direction.” Now she’s dreaming of doing research in the Arctic.

“The trip was once in a lifetime,” says Chan, who is majoring in geography and finishing an education degree at the same time. She intends to stick to her plans to teach primary or junior school. The Scarborough resident tried passionfruit and guava for the first time, was amazed at the brilliant night sky and loved spending every day outside. “Being able to experience nature like I did in Hawaii is something I want to take into the classroom.”

“Hawaii was a really cool trip,” says Young. “I learned so much and I think the kids were all really energized by it.”

Right: Sliding Sand Trail, Mount Haleakala. Photo by Kathy Young.

The advanced field course in physical geography is brand new. It was funded with $15,000 from the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. If Young can get more funding, next year she hopes to take geography students to another, though less balmy, volcanic island – Iceland.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer.

Republished courtesy of YFile – York University’s daily e-bulletin.